A man wearing a curly orange wig and an orange tutu marched along the Leidsestraat, arm in arm with a woman in orange hotpants and an orange cowboy hat — a lord and lady of misrule, at the head of a cheerful mob of similarly clad revellers, dancing to the beat emitted by giant speakers along the route. Down streets strung with orange bunting the crowds drifted in their orange finery; in the canals, too, boats loaded with orange people formed floating traffic jams. Nobody seemed to mind that they were going nowhere; in fact, so dense were the crowds that it was impossible to do anything but that.
As the day wore on, and people got steadily more inebriated, the mood shifted from one of amiable laissez-faire to something more anarchic. Broken glass and spilled food now decorated the streets; in the canals, too, was a detritus of floating beer cans, orange paper plates and punctured balloons. ‘I don’t think much of this,’ I said to my companion. ‘Seeing my lovely city covered in rubbish. As for the noise…’
‘It’s a safety valve,’ he said. ‘People need to be able to misbehave, once in a while. It’s the societies where that’s not allowed you have to worry about.’
For we had arrived in Amsterdam the day before Koningsdag (King’s Day), which, as any Dutch person will tell you, is a national holiday devoted to the celebration of, well, Dutchness. The official excuse is that it’s the king’s birthday, and Willem Alexander and his queen, Máxima, are indeed popular in Holland, but more than this, Koningsdag is a chance for a normally staid and law-abiding people to let their hair down. And to wear a lot of orange.
Great, you might think, if you’re looking to spend a jolly weekend in a city renowned for its hedonistic culture. But I was in Amsterdam for another reason — and one very much at odds with the mood of the raucous crowds thronging the narrow streets along the Canal Ring. When I’d booked the trip, it was with a different image of Amsterdam in mind, one that had to do with wartime, and the Occupation, and the privations suffered by the people of Amsterdam during and after the Second World War. The novel on which I was working was set in the winter of 1944, perhaps the darkest period in the history of the Netherlands.
With the book in mind, I’d hoped to revisit the city where my father was born, in order to remind myself of the layout of its streets, and to immerse myself in its atmosphere. This has been my preferred method for writing all my novels, in which place is often as important as character. Whether it’s Caracas in the 1950s, Cape Town in the 1870s or Hanover in the 1780s, I always like to get a sense of the topography of a city and a feel for the mood of the period about which I am writing.
Only this time it was going to prove a challenge, with even the quieter districts of the city transformed into Party Central. Wartime Amsterdam seemed a long way away. But I made a start. The day after the street party, when gangs of street cleaners were already clearing the orange-tinged mess from the streets and canals, I visited the Anne Frank House for the first time. Even though I’d been to Amsterdam many times, I had never before felt inclined to join the lengthy queues of tourists outside the famous house on the Prinsengracht. Now it had become imperative.
Once inside the narrow seventeenth-century rooms, with their tall windows shrouded in transparent grey blinds, it became easier to make the imaginative shift which allows one to experience the past through the eyes of the present. The fact that the rooms of the house itself are bare of furniture added to the sombre feeling. Even if I had known nothing of what happened to the people who once lived here – or rather, in the ‘Secret Annexe’, which was their hiding-place – I would have found the emptiness and silence profoundly affecting.
Climbing the steep, ladder-like stairs to the annexe itself was even more unsettling. In these cramped quarters eight people, including the thirteen-year-old Anne, her parents and her sister Margot, lived for two years, in conditions which it would be hard to imagine if we did not have Anne’s own luminous and often wryly funny account of what it was like. Even though I’d read Anne’s diaries, and numerous other books about the period, it couldn’t prepare me for the feeling I got on seeing the room where Anne once slept, on whose walls the pictures she pasted up of film stars – Ray Milland, Hedy Lamarr – are still to be seen, or the attic where, escaping for a while the claustrophobic conditions of her daily life, she did what writers do, and got down to work.
Earlier, I’d visited the Verzetsmuseum, the museum of the Dutch Resistance, which is housed in a former synagogue. The museum documents what took place during the years of the Occupation (May 1940 to May 1945), focusing on the growing resistance to the Nazi presence both by political activists and those who, although not necessarily identifying themselves as such, nonetheless took part in acts of resistance. Amongst the artefacts on display were letters, newspaper reports, photographs, and personal possessions, illustrating what day-to-day resistance meant.
Here, for example, were the cardboard prints used to create the metal ‘stereotypes’ needed for printing one of Holland’s 1,300 underground newspapers. These included Het Parool (The Password), Vrij Nederland (Free Netherlands), Waarheid (Truth) and Ons Volk (Our People). To be found in possession of these would have meant arrest and deportation to a concentration camp. Also to be seen were suitcases containing radio equipment used by Resistance fighters for transmitting coded messages back to England. Around 20,000 members of the Dutch Resistance were arrested and sent to concentration camps; of these, around 2,000 were executed, although many others died in prison.
Another exhibit was the typewriter on which political activist Coba Veltman typed pamphlets calling for a national strike in February 1941. Shocked and angered by the rounding up and deportation of young Jewish men in Amsterdam, Dutch transport workers and dockworkers came out on strike. Factories, offices, shops, and restaurants closed. An estimated 300,000 people are thought to have taken part in the strike, which was put down with extreme severity, but helped to galvanise public outrage against anti-Semitism across the country.
One of the more touching items was a letter, found on the back of a cardboard notice listing regulations at Scheveningen Prison, and written by Arie Addicks, sentenced to death for distributing the underground newspaper, Het Parool. ‘Having worked for freedom, I’m now having to pay a huge price for it,’ he wrote, adding wryly, ‘The stake was death. I lost this match.’
Thankfully, not all the stories I came across in this fascinating museum had an unhappy outcome, and there were many which lifted the spirits, if only because they showed the ingenuity and humanity of those struggling against oppression. These included examples of forged identity papers, and the tools used to make them, which were turned out in their thousands, in order to enable Jews and other proscribed minorities to escape detection. One of my favourite exhibits was the pair of hiking boots, worn by Eleonore Hertzberger during her escape to England with her husband Eddie in 1943. The boots looked well-worn, as indeed they might, since the young couple travelled by a roundabout route across the Pyrenees and through occupied France and Belgium. Exhausted and soaked to the skin, they were forced to crawl on hands and knees for part of the journey. It’s a scene straight out of Buchan, or Le Carré.
Emerging at last into the sunshine, after immersing myself in these grim reminders of the past, it struck me that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that I’d arrived in Amsterdam for Koningsdag. After all, history isn’t just a black-and-white affair: even in the darkest times, people have needed to celebrate and have fun. Maybe seeing my beloved city at its most frivolous was exactly what I needed to get a sense of how people managed to keep their spirits up when times were hard. I remembered the pin-ups of film stars on Anne’s wall, and the photographs in the Verzetsmuseum of people dancing in the streets and throwing flowers to the Canadian soldiers who had come to liberate them.
And it’s worth remembering that Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day) was outlawed by the Nazis during the Occupation, because it was seen as showing support for Queen Wilhelmina, who had escaped to London at the beginning of the war, and became the symbol of the Dutch Resistance. So for all its apparent silliness, there is a serious message underlying this particular annual carnival. Yes, on reflection, I’m glad to have been part of the great Dutch street-party.